Birge Harrison, part 4
A Puff of Steam
Concluding my methodical re-reading (and note-taking) of Mr. Harrison's book Landscape Painting (1909). What follows are my notes from each chapter (I skipped some that didn't really resonate with me).
All this is me attempting to distill the most important points from this insightful collection of lectures he gave.
Chapter 5 "Values"
"... the most important thing to consider is the value-key of our picture."
This is pretty critical. As important as determining the color scheme of a picture, as value has ascendancy over color. I am going to attempt to take this to heart myself in future. (I do make value sketches at the very least before starting any significant painting.) I think Mr. Harrison's point is to ask yourself when making a picture: what part of the value scale best suits your intent? Use as little as is needed (see next quote).
"An outdoor picture motive is complicated indeed if it cannot be divided into four or five dominant values."
Chapter 6 "Drawing"
He somewhat surprisingly suggests NOT drawing from the landscape as much as from the human figure to gain precision:
"The articulation of a limb upon the trunk of an oak. for instance, might start a foot higher up or a foot lower down and still be in character, but the articulation of a knee joint, an elbow, or a shoulder of the human figure must be true to the inch."
He is correct that drawing the human figure is more exacting, but I would not forgo drawing from nature. Get a feel for the landscape and its components and character. Especially for when the time comes that you need to invent something in a landscape picture. That drawing experience and your familiarization with natural elements will pay off.
One of his final remarks suggests that "drawing by mass" translates to painting more directly than linear drawing. I can't disagree with that. One of the transitions I had to make from years of drawing to painting, was to think and work more in terms of masses of color and value, instead of linearly.
Chapter 7 "Composition"
"In my own opinion, about all of the rules of composition which are of any practical value to a painter, are negative rather than positive, and can best be expressed in a series of don'ts."
I find composition a tricker aspect of art to explain and teach than others, and it always seems to make more sense to show students what to avoid than what to specifically employ in their work. And there are often exceptions.
"Don't try to say two things on one canvas."
He names some other rules to follow this, but calls this the one rule that cannot be broken, while occasionally the others can be broken.
"... don't confuse your audience with irrelevancies."
I would personally say that a canvas CAN have more than one area of interest, but that one in particular HAS to predominate.
Chapter 8 "Quality"
He discusses surface quality of paintings in this chapter. His overriding point here is that surface quality, whether smooth or rough has to suit the painting and subject/mood as a whole, and not be inappropriate or distracting.
Chapter 10 "On Framing Pictures"
Birge was a fan of gold or metal leaf on frames.
He believed in the formula of:
Simple picture, intricate frame.
Intricate picture, simple frame.
Chapter 15 "The Importance of Fearlessness in Painting"
"Always dare to the limit of your knowledge and just a bit beyond. You must show conviction yourself, if you would convince others."
Chapter 16 "The Subconscious Servant"
"A picture painted direct from nature must necessarily be hasty, ill-considered, somewhat raw, and lacking in the synthetic and personal quality which is the distinguishing mark of all great art - unless the work is really done from memory while the painter is standing before nature - which might be the case if he had had time and opportunity to ripen his vision."
"... true synthetic beauty is not within the reach of the mere copyist."
This is a fascinating chapter and one that I am not completely sure I understand. He talks about the use of memory in painting. One must see through the mind and not just the eye. Painting from nature feeds the "subconscious servant" and stores up information that helps down the line with one's work. So that as an artist matures he or she is not just copying nature but taking in what is there and using and rearranging it to make an effective picture.
Chapter 19 "What is a Good Picture?"
"Art is natural beauty interpreted through human temperament."
"The highest form of sincerity is truth to the artist's own personal vision of beauty."
Chapter 20 "The True Impressionism"
"... technique is not the difficult thing in art ... but it requires many a long and weary year to learn to see."
"... students learn much more from each other than they do from their masters."
I have been in classes for which this was true, and many where it was not. I suppose it depends on the quality of instructor, and mix of students you wind up with.
Chapter 21 "The Future of American Art"
Birge wraps up with an optimistic outlook for American art going forward. As in, this is OUR time now! He also muses about the possibilities of modern structures like steel mills and skyscrapers as subject matter for paintings.
This is a fantastic book, especially if you love American Landscape painting and Tonalist painters like Inness, etc. Birge's words really resonate with me and this book has a permanent place in my recommended reading list. I now want to get a hardbound earlier printing for my library. I wish someone would reprint this with color reproductions, but I also with that about John Carlson's book...
I plan to re-read Carlson's landscape painting book as carefully as I did this. Also upcoming is Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Painting.
Inn at Cos Cob